Archive for the 3:Lunar Category

Review: Two Sought Adventure

Posted in 1957, 3:Lunar with tags , on May 5, 2011 by Aaron

Fritz Leiber

I was looking forward to reading this very much as a bit of an escape from the usual SF fare. As soon as I started reading it, I had my doubts about the worth of the contents. I have never liked being introduced to a fantasy book by the scene being set with what seem clumsy and contrived fantasy names and locations. It’s as if the author wants to impress with the power of his imagination and how exotic and mysterious his world must be.  Maybe back in the day it was fine, but these days to this sometimes jaded and experienced reader it’s not interesting, even a turn-off perhaps unless you’re about 16 years old.  However, as I often say here, when reading these stories we mustn’t be too critical in a contemporary light.  We must try wind our minds back to the times in which they were written.  Not an easy thing when you’re born in 1969, but as I was weaned on Heinlein juveniles and Hugh Walters around 1980 or so it’s no big deal really.  I really want to pick up some Walters first editions sometime… hard to come by those.

To the book at hand.  While I did start with a fair bit of skepticism, that quickly disappeared as I got engaged in the capers of this pair of fearless and daring adventurers.  Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser present an unlikely couple in the form of a Conanesque barbarian and a diminutive thief in the mold of a kind of a half-elf character from Dungeons & Dragons.  Indeed, these characters and their world were apparently an influence in the role-playing world.  You can read about them in more detail on wikipedia here.

Fritz Leiber presents a bit of a tragic figure for all his ability as a writer in the realms of SF, horror and fantasy.  Apparently an accomplished fencer, this skill of his comes through in excellent and believable descriptions of bouts of swordplay throughout the collection.  It is a collection, did I mention that?  Anyway, these two good friends engage in a bit of hack & slash and various other types of derring-do – breaking and entering, wasteland adventures and such and so forth.  Their influence as literary characters and that of their world (in particular their hometown of Lankhmar) remain to this day.  I recommend looking into these two more widely on the Internet.

This isn’t a particularly good review.  It’s the first since, well… Mutant, way back in December ’09!!  Man, I’m out of practice.  Still this is better than nothing and will hopefully get my Review wheels turning again.

Bottom line is (and this is what we all want after all..) that this is a good collection of Fantasy tales with two very believable and human protagonists.  No superhuman abilities or miraculous escapes, just excellent fantasy fun with engaging characters.  If you are seeking adventure, make it three and join Fafhrd and Mouser.  Highly recommended.


Review: Mutant

Posted in 1953, 3:Lunar, Review with tags , , , , on December 29, 2009 by Aaron

Lewis Padgett

This is the third of three books by the Kuttner/Moore team that Gnome Press have in their stable, and like the one other copy I have – Robots Have No Tails… – this is a collection though presented (albeit rather thinly) in novel form.

Each chapter is a short story in the ‘Baldy’ series. There is a brief intro to each that provides a linking device by which these tales are tied together. A Baldy crashes his ‘copter in some remote mountains and accesses shared memories recollecting important events in Baldy history while he waits against hope for rescue. I found this glue rather unnecessary and again, for me, it was a distraction and detraction from tales that were on the whole pretty good as stand-alone pieces – I could have quite readily inferred the progression satisfactorily myself.

Baldies are a post-apocalyptic (or post ‘Big Mistake’ as it’s called) human mutation that have telepathic powers. In actual fact, ‘mutant’ is a bit of a misnomer. The term is traditionally used to describe a one-off genetic aberration such as those sported by the various X-Men, by Johnny Alpha and his Strontium Dog colleagues or to a lesser extent the abilities of the Children of he Atom. Baldies are really a different species arising from a mutation – not ‘mutants’ per se, but a brand new species of the homo genus. This Big Mistake caused an identical genetic modification in some people so a small percentage of post-Mistake offspring exhibit dominant Baldy traits – Baldies become a permanent and growing percentage of the population.

So, I hear you ask, why were they called ‘Baldies’? Well, they are bald as you can see from Ric Binkley’s cover art, but further, have a complete lack of bodily hair. Because of this, they were able to be readily identified and most resorted to the habit of wearing hairpieces to camouflage themselves from society at large. A prudent move as Baldies often engender a certain amount of fear in most normal people due to their mind-reading abilities and as a result suffer from some discrimination. But outside of the extremist ‘Paranoid’ Baldy faction, they are generally understanding of many humans’ attitude towards them in their obviously dominant position, and seek to bring a reconciliation that will be satisfactory in the long term.

Just on the note of conflict, I just want to mention a cultural idiosyncrasy of the times – the duel. All men carry a dagger so they can engage in duels if challenged. What is it about this form of conflict resolution that so appealed to SF writers back then? It seems a bit odd and rather antiquated from the viewpoint of today, The great RAH used this device in his early work Beyond This Horizon (with firearms though, not blades). But as I so often encourage, you have to read these books with a certain amount of tolerance and with one mental foot in the 1940s or 50s. These things (the duels) go to the death, so they aren’t taken lightly and to engage with a Baldy is tantamount to suicide as they can read your mind as to what moves you’re about to pull.

As I mentioned earlier, the stories depict several key scenarios in Baldy history – they are snapshots of events leading to the inevitable confrontation between them and regular humans. This culminates in a solitary Baldy having to make the final decision as to whether to extinguish the threat to Baldy existence or let fate determine how the relationship between the two species develops.

Aside from those unnecessary linking intrusions I really enjoyed the tales. In contrast to mutant fare we have been getting in the modern sci-fi era – isolated and/or disparate mutations affecting individuals in radically different and bizarre ways – I liked the treatment here. A single mutation consistent and breeding human mutation evolution that has the potential to subsume the inferior (or at least non-telepathic) regular human version. In some ways this brings to mind John Wyndham’s story The Midwich Cuckoos, but the Baldies aren’t evil as the children in that story apparently are.

What Henry Kuttner (all subsequent editions are credited to him, see the book’s ISFDB page – I suspected as much from the style of the prose) does well here is conveying the sense of community that Baldies experience. They have a telepathic link that’s kind of analagous to the Internet – each individual is kind of server. They can all choose to partake of the resource, or ‘log out’ and resist intruding on, or intrusion from others. It’s quite skillfully handled given that it’s a tough thing to try to impart what is actually happening in the mind. Let me give you an example:

They looked at each other in silence. Their minds touched and sprang apart and then touched again, tentatively, with light thoughts that leaped from point to point as gingerly as if the ideas were ice-floes that might sink beneath the full weight of conscious focus.
I thought I loved you . . . perhaps I did . . . yes, I too . . . but now there can’t be . . . (sudden, rebellious denial) . . . no, it’s not true, there can’t ever be rightness between us . . . not as if we were ordinary people . . . we’d always remember that picture, how I looked (abrupt sheering off from the memory) . . . (agonized repudiation of it) . . . no couldn’t help that . . . always between us . . . rooted too deeply . . . and anyhow, Cas – (sudden closing off of both minds at once, before even the thought-image had time to form.)
Alexa stood up. “I’m going to town,” she said.

page 105/106

That’s a bit lengthy, but it gives you a great example of how he’s handled it. Pretty slick if you ask me. Short passages of mind communication are scattered throughout the book and really help us become part of the Baldy experience – not just a third-party to it.

To wrap this up, Mutant is an enjoyable read that presents some interesting dilemmas and makes us think about how we might handle being in such a position as they. However, you don’t need to be a telepath to work out what’s happening over the course of the stories, so if you read this collection, keep in mind they are tales separated in time and just skip the linking interludes. You will enjoy it a bit more.

Review: SF’58: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy

Posted in 1958, 3:Lunar, Review with tags , on November 5, 2009 by Aaron

Judith Merril, editor

I’ve been reading a little slow lately – it’s taken me about a month to work my way through this anthology. My reactions to it are a bit mixed, though before looking a bit more closely at it, first a very brief history.  The SF(‘xx) series edited by Judith Merril was a long-running annual series in which Ms Merril attempted to collect the outstanding SF&F for a particular year.  To put things in their proper order, I’ll talk more about this and her when I review the very first tome in this series.

As I said, my reactions were mixed.  I normally read anthologies cover to cover, as I imagine the editor always has some sort of structure or theme development in mind when putting the thing together.  While I did read the first story first, I thereafter hopped all over the shop in reading.  I’m not sure if this affected my reading experience or not.

I felt it was quite an odd bunch of stories – a couple I thought were fantastic, but others were a little strange to my way of thinking.  I just want to mention a couple of my favorites before taking a general overview.

The Wonder Horse by George Byram is a fantasy tale about a mutant racehorse that goes on to be unbeatable, the controversy the horse generates and how it’s owners cope with the sudden fame and fortune.  A very straightforward story, no real surprises or twists, no startling conclusion, and one that perhaps seemed a little misplaced in an anthology of this nature.  To my surprise though, I enjoyed it a lot.  A thoroughly engaging and satisfying read.

The other (and perhaps the) stand-out tale for me was Zenna Henderson’s Wilderness.  Told with extreme skill and wonderfully paced, it relates the experiences of one young woman – a teacher in a very small and remote South-West town – and the discovery of who she really is.  Confused and frightened by her heightened senses, she thinks her sanity to be slowly deteriorating until she meets someone like her and reluctantly accepts her true identity.  I’ve since discovered that those of you familiar with the ‘People’ series from Zenna Henderson will no doubt more-or-less know what they are in for here, but for me it was new and unfamiliar.  Ms Henderson was a very talented writer and I’m certainly looking forward to reading more of her work; she also appears in both Judith Merril’s first Gnome Press anthology and in SF’57.

The Fly by George Langelaan deserves a mention of course.  A tale with which everyone is very familiar now, but nevertheless it was an education to read in it’s original form.  This is (I think) it’s first publication in hardcover, although it was earlier published in Playboy magazine in July, 1957.

Another notable inclusion is Near Miss.  The last Henry Kuttner story to be published; a tribute to the prolific and very popular author who died that year.

Prefacing each tale is a small introduction by Ms Merril and at the back of the book is a Summary and a section called ‘The Year’s S-F, Summation and Honorable Mentions’ – a kind of an appendix or perhaps a reading list for you.  The short introductions add an extra dimension to each tale –  Ms Merril gives us the occasional bit of insight into her choices, a little background or info on the author and/or story.  They make for interesting reading so here they are reproduced for your appreciation.

View this document on Scribd

Complementing the stories are 6 non-fiction articles that comment on various aspects of science fiction and ‘space science’ in general.  The most interesting of which is Sputnik: One Reason Why We Lost written by G. Harry Stine.

In all honesty, I struggle to see how this could be collectively considered ‘The Year’s Best’, but Judith Merril is far more experienced than I when it comes to this kind of thing so I take her at her word.  Having said that though, the inclusion of that non-fiction really adds an extra dimension to this book and this combined with those two or three exceptional tales make the effort worthwhile.

Review: Pattern for Conquest

Posted in 1949, 3:Lunar, Review with tags , on August 1, 2009 by Aaron

George O. Smith

As I mentioned in the Close Up, I was very much looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of this particular book.  Fortunately I didn’t have any expectations regarding the story, despite my eagerness in possessing a copy.  George O. Smith was a regular contributor to pulp magazines in the 40s, and this is his first true novel – albeit reassembled from serialization in Astounding magazine.  The only previous experience I’d had with Smith was the short story ‘History Repeats’ in audio form, which is available from Librivox as part of the ‘Short Science Fiction Collection 20’ audio collection.  I quite liked that story but just to preempt my review a little, it seems he developed his style a bit between the pulp release of ‘Pattern for Conquest’ in 1946 and the 1959 publication of ‘History Repeats’.

No (or low) expectations turned out to be a good thing.  Another good thing was that I’d read Space Lawyer a few weeks ago.  If you go back and read that review, it might give you a clue as to why it was good preparation.

‘Pattern for Conquest’ is an interesting book.  ‘Interesting’ however, is an adjective that can cut both ways.  The story defies a concise summary as quite a lot happens so I feel something of importance or interest would inevitably have to be omitted so I’m not going to attempt it.  I’m just going to talk about both sides of the ‘interesting’ label.

If you made yourself familiar with the Space Lawyer review, one of the main reasons I gave that book a COSMIC! rating is the use of the vernacular of the times.  The quaint mid-20th-century exclamaitions and language were a couple of reasons I enjoyed that tale so much, yet the very same factor works against this story.  In ‘Lawyer’ some of this language is so over the top that one suspects author Nat Schachner had his tongue firmly in cheek.  As a result, one is free to enjoy it as an endearing idiosyncrasy of the book.  Here, though Smith is not so bold with his turn of phrase, the language and witty repartee come across as especially dated.  Kind of like your old aunt’s 50s living room as opposed to the more progressive designs of the times.  Despite both possessing obvious roots in a common past, one retains it’s charm and style and the other is just… tacky and old.

Another thing that is ‘interesting’ is the apparent attempt at incorporating some ‘hard science’.  I refer to Robert Heinlein reasonably regularly in these reviews as he is probably the benchmark for science fiction of this period.  When RAH explains something in terms of the science or rationale behind it, it comes across as sensible, readable and at least convincing.  Whether it is actually true or not isn’t really important – it doesn’t stand in the way of the story.  Here, it’s not so.  Often I had to go back and reread descriptions of effects or processes as they came across as confused nonsense the first time around.  Even if they were scientifically sound they were clumsily handled. With the re-digestion and extra conjugation required (which took me out of the flow of the tale), I just had to either continue with a mental question mark over it or proceed on faith.  Both cases aren’t conducive to a satisfactory reading experience.

Ok, enough of the bad stuff.  The positive side of the blade is what propelled this out of an ‘Orbital’ rating and into ‘Lunar’ territory.  The story rocks along.  Though many things transpire a little too rapidly to be entirely comfortable, there is never a dull moment.  This book isn’t a page-turner but there is always something to come back to when you put it down.  I like a book like that.  As is typical with science fiction of this vintage, the book is too short – there are many ideas, situations and themes that would be given much more detailed treatment in subsequent eras, but the story itself, the premise of the whole thing is very good.  I especially liked the path that the earthmen chose in the face of their defeat and domination at the hands of their alien antagonists.  I can’t help but think that this was influenced by the cost (in all senses of the word) of WWII, the book being written just at the end of that period.

A story with many shortcomings, nevertheless a light and enjoyable read.  If you don’t mind a bit of simplistic gung-ho space opera and are prepared to accept this on it’s merits as a product of it’s time, then great.  If you are a trifle more demanding, well… you might not enjoy it.  Tempering that though is a faint but detectable current of intelligence and some real food for thought, especially towards the end.

Review: Children of the Atom

Posted in 1953, 3:Lunar, Review with tags , on July 18, 2009 by Aaron

Wilmar H. Shiras

This book has quite a reputation (in SF literature at least) for a couple of reasons, and after reading this myself, I would have to say deservedly so.  However, I would like to separate those reasons from my enjoyment in reading it.  Before I get into what I actually thought of the story, I would like to touch upon the reasons this particular book has the reputation it does.

First, this book is considered a very early example of intellectually driven science fiction, as opposed to the action/adventure and technologically oriented ‘space opera’ style fare that was very popular back then.  Not that space opera was the only thing going around, many authors – Heinlein being the prominent example – were beginning to produce tales that saw good character development and a solid grounding in the scientific realities of the times.  But here we see a story built around the central themes of psychology and philosophy.  It’s interesting, it’s refreshing, but leads to a challenge for the typical Gnome Press reader which I’ll address later.

The second thing of note is the similarity to the X-Men comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  Though widely credited with the inspiration behind the now global entertainment franchise, this has never been officially acknowledged.  Indeed though, The parallels between the two tales are there and unmistakable.

There is an excellent synopsis of the book over at Red Jacket Press.  I recommend reading that to get a taste of what the books’ all about.  You can pick up a beautiful and faithful reproduction of this Gnome Press 1st edition also if you wish.  The Red Jacket reproduction is reviewed at SFFWorld.  It’s a more academic review than I like (or are capable doing…), but it’s worth a read.

Back to, and regarding the story however, as much as I enjoyed it as a piece of true science fiction history and as part of the Gnome Press family, I was frustrated by it.

It’s very interesting in places and very droll in others.  It might be better to say the story moves along in some places and stalls in others.  The beginning of the book is engaging, we meet our main characters, uncover the source of Tim’s problems and embark on Peter’s quest to collect and empower these special children.  This continues nicely as we move first to Elsie’s and then to Stella’s stories.  However, once the school is established the story starts to founder.  It perhaps becomes a vehicle for the author to voice some speculations and opinions through hyper-intellectual dialogue amongst the growing population of children.  Things get a little more interesting when mysterious pranks start to occur in the school and the prospect of uncovering the culprit begins to engage us again, only to stumble once the perpetrator is found and we dive into the academic discourse once more. I mentioned the typical Gnome Press reader earlier, and it’s with this issue that I think they would have a problem, as indeed did I.  For all it’s cool premise and intellectual appeal, this story just doesn’t rock – stark contrast to the tale I had just completed, Space Lawyer.

It’s all wrapped up quickly and neatly, and in a way that is just a little anti-climactic and bit disappointing.  An interesting book?  Sure.  A different book?  Yes.  Worth reading?  Of course.  But a fun book?  No, not for me anyway.

Just as a footnote, is this book really ‘science fiction’?  The only possible elements of any kind of real sf I could discerne was that it’s set in the ‘future’ (the early 1970s), and that these kids’ intellects were boosted by their parents’ exposure to a dose of radiation.  Are these things enough to constitute a real science fiction story??  I dunno, you be the judge on that.

Review: The Thirty-First of February

Posted in 1949, 3:Lunar, Review with tags , on May 4, 2009 by Aaron

Nelson Bond

The Thirty-First of February is an unusual title. This is a collection of thirteen stories that supposedly could have been written on that date. As we all know there aren’t 31 days in February, so we can conclude that this must be a fantasy collection.  There is very little in the way of science fiction here, not that there is anything wrong with that at all. Indeed, the stories in this collection are fine examples of the short form of writing.  Like many of the authors who were published by Gnome Press, I hadn’t heard of Nelson Bond prior to this endeavor.  He wrote across many genres and for many mediums apparently – early television, radio, plays as well as books and magazines.

The man has (or rather had, he’s dead now) talent.  I could see that from about 2 pages in to the very first story.  The Sportsman was the name of the tale, it was very simple with no real twist or big ideas, just a little mystery at the end.  A little low-key maybe, but it gave me an excellent insight into Bond’s style.  It’s definitely dated though he creates a certain ‘imagination flavor’ for me.  Two writers that come to mind as I think about this idea are H.P. Lovecraft and Mervyn Peake.  Lovecraft creeps along dark, slimy and forbidding ways with unseen things lurking behind the words.  Peake’s prose rides dust motes suspended in shafts of sunlight in an empty room and smells a bit musty.  Mr Bond is sports jacket-wearing after-dinner cigars in a slightly smokey but well lit study, leather-bound volumes lining the walls and a tumbler of whiskey at hand.  Well, that’s what they do for me, and I like writers that can have that effect.

The stories in this collection are a little ordinary, there are no ingenious plots, not unexpectedly clever twists and nothing that really knocks me back enough to say “Wow, that was great!!”.  But for me, that’s not the point.  I enjoyed this very much but not because of the aforementioned qualities (indeed, they were a bit lacking), but for the consistent quality and ‘flavor’ of his writing.  I just enjoyed reading it so much!  Of course it’s not really as bland as perhaps I am indicating here, so I’ll mention a couple of the more interesting stories.  Not necessarily the best, but most interesting.

‘The Five Lives of Robert Jordan’ follows several hours in the life of a man who, by the strange power of a mysterious watch, lives these hours several times over as a different personality.  For each  the same basic events unfold, having the same basic outcomes, but in different circumstances.  Actually, it reads more like an assignment that the modern creative writing teacher might dish out, and after the first two or three iterations I found myself very impatient for the conclusion.  I guess back in the ’40s this device might have seemed intriguing, but alas, sixty years on it’s not new.

Which brings me to another point.  One which I’ll no doubt touch on many times over the course of this odyssey.  When reading these books, it is always good to keep in mind that the stories that Gnome Press published were for the most part penned sometime between the early ’40s and late ’50s and when reading books of a certain vintage, we should try and time-warp our conciousness back to those times.  It’s often a little unfair to judge a book like this in contemporary light.  I must post on that at more length sometime… anyway, back to the book at hand.

The final story ‘Pilgrimage’, tells of a time in the not too distant post-apocalyptic future where a matriarchal tribe lives in an area named Jinnia, and the next Clan-mother is sent on a quest to discover the secret of the Ancients.  On her journey, she is rescued from the attentions of a wild Man-thing by a man who is obviously not a degraded man-animal as she would expect.  They travel together to the Place of the Gods as he tells tales to her disbelieving ears of how the human civilization used to be patriarchal before the fall of the Ancients.  They travel through Braska territory and on to Kota where she gets an unexpected surprise when she views the Gods visages carven into the mountain…

As much as I admire Nelson Bond’s prose and enjoyed reading this collection, none of the stories really captured my imagination.  This collection is subtitled ’13 Flights of Fantasy’, and although the writing is streamlined, aerodynamic and looks nice taxiing up and down the runway, unfortunately for the most part they struggle to get airborne.

Review: Sixth Column

Posted in 1949, 3:Lunar, Review with tags , on March 31, 2009 by Aaron

Robert Heinlein

I think I mentioned elsewhere that I love reading early Heinlein.  I do.  There is nothing complex about his writing.  It’s very simple; the dialogue is simple, the plots are straightforward and the ideas are not challenging.  These are the reasons I could enjoy books like Starman Jones and Farmer in the Sky so much when I was 10 years old.  How fond are the memories of going to the Napier Public Library after school to pick up another Heinlein story, or another science fiction adventure from Hugh Walters.  Yet underneath the stories and adventures with which Robert Heinlein captivated my young mind, bigger ideas were waiting; social commentary and (sometimes harsh) critique of institutions such as religion and government.  Ideas that wouldn’t bring themselves to the fore until I was older and (somewhat) wiser.  Of course, in Heinlein’s juvenile novels, the protagonists were about my age back then and I could readily identify with the issues and feelings that they often had to overcome.

This book is not a juvenile novel (it lacks a young character for a start) but it reads like one:  Invading bad guys.  The last outpost of hope.  Wondrous secret technology.  The simplicity of it all as I alluded to earlier.  The content is a little more mature, however.  The characters don’t turn a hair at killing, and killing masses of people at that.  Indeed, one individual’s execution is described quite graphically.  These things are certainly out of bounds in Heinlein’s juvenile fare.

The US has been invaded and defeated by the ‘PanAsians’.  It’s not made specific who the PanAsians actually are, but I assumed them to be a bloc of countries including the likes of Japan, China and Korea.  They are of mongoloid extraction – that at least is made clear.  The military has been utterly wiped out, except for a research group under a mountain in The Rockies somewhere, and they have just all but eliminated themselves via an inadvertently uncontrolled use of the Ledbetter Effect (Dr Ledbetter himself didn’t survive) – a mysterious new force that isn’t fully understood.  This is where we pick up the story.  Our tiny group of heroes recognizes the powerful force they have on their hands and has to somehow utilize it to free America from the domination of the PanAsians.

In the Close Up of this book, I commented on the bizarre cover.  I also said that the cover is quite an accurate description of what is inside.  Our little band decides to set up a religious cult, capitalizing on food shortages and unemployment to attract followers, while assuaging the fears of the PanAsian authorities by dishing out gold coins – gold that is obtained by transmutation (one of the numerous and very handy uses the Ledbetter Effect can be turned to).  Other things are in their favor also, such as the occupiers reluctance to police things such as religious organizations and the worship of Gods.  The great God that is invented in this case is called ‘Mota’ – the reverse spelling of atom.  Under the guise of worshiping Mota, the cult travels freely around the country, and sets up a network of ‘churches’ that waits for the right time to rise up and use the Ledbetter Effect at it’s most devastating.

The Ledbetter Effect is truly a marvelous thing.  Just a little too marvelous to my way of thinking.  Cool looking divine halo; check.  Impenetrable force field; check.  Undetectable communications channels; check.  Transmutation; check.  Tractor and repulsor beams; check.  Fear-inducing subsonics; check.  Disintegrator; check.  Laser-like cutting focus; check.  Release surface tension on cell walls leading to explosive decompression of human bodies; check.  And get this one folks – race-selective death ray; double-check.  The last is especially useful when your country is occupied by a race that are referred to as monkeys, flat-faces, apes, baboons and slanties at various points throughout the book.

Apparently the book generates a bit of controversy regarding the depiction of the PanAsians in this way.  Too rascist or something.  I don’t have a problem with it at all.  To my way of thinking, it fits very well within the context of the book.  I’m sure if anyone was occupying my country, putting people in concentration camps, engaging in genocide and generally being a nuisance, I would think of much worse things to refer to them by.

I’ll leave the considerable scope for social and institutional commentary analysis to others who are smarter than I.  Before I wrap this up, I just want to mention the pacing of the story.  It breezes along at a good pace.  There is never a dull moment and the dialogue heavy exposition that characterizes some of Heinlein’s work is absent.  As I mentioned earlier, this has an RAH juvenile feel, and it all wraps up neatly in the end.

I have two major criticisms of the book.  One is the Ledbetter Effect, it is just too powerful and I struggled to take it seriously even in a science fiction setting.  The other is in a similar vein to one thing I said about Silverberg’s Starman’s Quest.  The end comes too quickly.  Not as quickly as ‘Quest’ but more time should have been taken over unfolding the climax of the story.

A rather obscure work from Mr Heinlein, Sixth Column (retitled as The Day After Tomorrow is some subsequent editions) is good brisk fun from an author who has always been very enjoyable for me to read.

Review: The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag

Posted in 1959, 3:Lunar, Review with tags , on March 20, 2009 by Aaron

Robert Heinlein

Wow.  It’s such a pleasure to read Robert Heinlein.  I haven’t actually read a book of his for… well, I don’t know how many years.  Before the era of modern communications and the Internet, I was a huge consumer of Heinlein fare.  I cut my teeth – literarily speaking – on his juveniles.  And in the last few years I have listened to practically everything of his on audio book, some more than once.  This book however, has been one that has somehow stayed low on my radar.  I have of course known of it’s existence, but never had the opportunity to take it in for some reason.  Until now.

This is a collection, the title story occupying about half of the book.  It’s a horror.  Or, it’s supposed to be a horror, I think.  Heinlein’s style doesn’t translate well to the horror genre.  I wasn’t scared, or troubled.  He just doesn’t write with enough gravity.  It reads more like a noir or hardboiled crime fiction/ fantasy crossover.  Ok, there were a couple of instances which I found a little disturbing – the necessity for the Sons of the Bird to cover their faces with their hands upon mention of the Bird – was an unusual example.  But with Heinlein’s trademark easy style and dry wit always present, there is a disconnect between the subject matter and the way it is delivered.  Don’t get me wrong, the title story is a good read (an excellent read in a couple of ways I’ll talk about later), but it doesn’t read the way it is, I think, meant to.  Some of the elements in the story also brought to mind a couple of examples of contemporary horror: the recent movie Mirrors and to a lesser extent, Stephen King’s The Mist.

The remaining stories are a mixed bag.

The next – The Man Who Traveled in Elephants –  is a strange story about an elderly man passing into the afterlife.  In that story the main character makes a passing reference to the book  And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street first published in 1937 by Dr Seuss, and there are obvious similarities between the two tales.

After that we have a time-travel tale with a twist in the mold of By His Bootstraps, a paranoid questioning reality, another bizarre story that I can only surmise is some sort of political commentary (I didn’t enjoy that one very much), and finally another reality warping play on time and space in the form of a tesseract-shaped house.

As much as I did or didn’t enjoy the stories in this book, there are some things about Heinlein’s writing I always appreciate.  the first are the puzzles or paradoxes he bases some of his short work around.  In this volume, All You Zombies— (the time-travel one) and —And He Built a Crooked House— are fine examples of this kind of work.

The other thing that I enjoy so much in Heinlein’s work are his characters.  Or more precisely, the insight he has into relationships – especially between men and women – that comes through in his writing.  The protagonists in the title story are a husband and wife team of private investigators, and I got as much (if not more) enjoyment from their interplay – both spoken and unspoken – than from the actual story itself.

Another thing I love about Heinlein’s characters from this period (his early work and the juveniles) is that they are spiritually rooted in the 1940s and ’50s.  This comes through so clearly in the vernacular they use, they attitudes they have and many of the social customs they display.

Randall had been married too long and too comfortably not to respect danger signals.  He got up, went to [his wife], and put an arm around her.  “Look kid,” he said seriously and gently, “I’m not pulling your leg.  We’ve got our wires crossed somehow, but I’m giving it to you as straight as I can, the way I remember it.”

If that isn’t pure ’40s or ’50s, I don’t know what is.

I mentioned a mixed bag earlier.  This collection is certainly that.  I suggest this is equal parts classic short Heinlein, fantasy and something from left field.  I think most everyone will find something to their liking contained within, but I think not many will like everything.

All You Zombies— and —And He Built a Crooked House— can be read online via Best Science Fiction Stories.

Review: Agent of Vega

Posted in 1960, 3:Lunar, Review with tags , on February 21, 2009 by Aaron

James H. Schmitz

I want to be a Zone Agent from Vega.  Agents from Vega are the coolest law enforcement dudes ever.  You can keep your lightsabre and mind tricks.  I don’t want a Lawgiver and a fancy uniform.  All that gimmicky stuff out of the Applied Sciences Division of Wayne Enterprises can’t hold a candle to the gear that a Zone Agent has access to.  A Zone Agent has psi-powers.  A Zone Agent is a skilled negotiator, but has the authority use brutal and terminal force without hesitation – and they will.  A Zone Agent has the unquestioning co-operation of local governments all over Vega.  A Zone Agent has a spaceship.

A spaceship??  So what!!  Even Flash Gordon had a spaceship.

Yes, but he didn’t have a spaceship that was custom crafted to an Agent’s exact requirements with no expense spared.  A spaceship that has an artificial intelligence built from the Agent’s own, yet develops it’s own personality.  A spaceship stocked full of all manner of trick gear that can get you out of any jam.

This book is full-on space opera and starts off at speed and never lets up.  This is a reflection of the of the book’s short story origins.  As with quite a few Gnome Press books, this is a collection of work previously published in pulp magazines and presented via hardcover format.  It reads as such, though this isn’t a bad thing, but it does impact on the ‘setting of the stage’ so to speak.  We never really know exactly what ‘Vega’ is, or where or when it is.  I assumed from the hints presented throughout the book that it’s made up of ‘Zones’ and part of much larger (but never mentioned) Galactic Empire of some sort.  I imagined Vega to be located out towards the edge of the galaxy because of the impression I got during the course of the stories.  In other words, the broader setting is very vague.  However, we do know that it is a long, long time in the future.  Mankind has settled the stars and has had enough time to develop localized physical adaptations, and some alien species are incorporated into the greater Vegan society.  Like any society, Vega has law enforcement and the cream of the crop are the Zone Agents.  Somewhat analogous to the FBI, but with much wider ranging responsibilities and powers.  The Agents operate out of shadowy Department of Galactic Zones based on the dedicated planet of Jeltad.

The common thread of the Department runs through the book.  Also, out of the four stories, Zone Agent Padagan makes an appearance in first three and Agent Grandma Wannattel figures in the final two.  As a result, it does give the illusion of an ongoing story rather than four different but related tales culled from separate publications.

If I was to be critical, the final story is a little weak, or slow might actually be a better way of putting it, compared to the preceding space romps.  The characters throughout the book are a little thin, but to be fair they do exist in a limited context due to the nature of the stories.  Also, there is nothing hard about the science, theres no science at all actually.  Things like faster-than-light travel, tractor beams, myterious ‘grapples’ that pick up things outside the ship and the ‘Emergency Treatment Chamber’ within – they… well, they just are.  They’re never explained, or described even.  But this is space opera after all and I, for one, am quite happy to put all that aside as this book is a very enjoyable read for fans of this genre.

My only regret is that Mr. Schmitz didn’t write more in this universe.  I would love to spend more time on assignment with the Agents of Vega.  Now, where can I sign up……?